Academic libraries and survival

9:57 am academic libraries, libraries in society

The Chinese American Librarians Association invited me to participate in the 2008 Sino-US Forum for Library Practice in Kunming, China.  Its co-sponsors are the Library and Information Committee for Academic Libraries of Yunnan Province and the library of Kunming University of Science and Technology.

Among the speakers from China, all of them directors of university libraries, the survival of the academic library has been a recurrent theme.  Mass digitization projects—both those well known in the US such as Google’s and the Internet Archives’ Million Books project—as well as significant projects in China have prompted questions about the viability of libraries that are known for their extensive print collections complemented by access to online databases, many offering a wide range of full-text content.

Again and again they cited the need for libraries to digitize the unique and special items in their special collections as a way to demonstrate the distinct contribution each can make.  They didn’t address issues about the library’s survival once these collections are digitized and as widely available as the contents of the Million Books project.  They also cited copyright restrictions as limitations on the usefulness of digitized book collections.

One library director outlined her strategy for assuring that her university will value the library’s contribution.  Dr. Jinhau Shen, chief librarian at Tongji University in Shanghai described a unique outreach program.  As China continues to industrialize and its own people become a larger and larger market for its products, information becomes more important to emerging industries such as automobile manufacturing.  Tongji University’s library has initiated discussions with local auto manufacturers to learn what sort of business, engineering, and scientific information they need.  It has developed partnerships to provide that information.  This library has found a void and filled it.  It demonstrates its value by providing needed information to an industry that is very important to the nation’s future.   It expects to have competitors in the future, but also thinks that its experience as a pioneer will give it a competitive advantage for some time to come.

I commend Dr. Jinhau Shen and her staff for their innovation and strategic thinking.  It has identified an underserved, perhaps even unserved, community and has developed services that will contribute to the community’s success.  I don’t advise every US academic library to imitate this example of providing information services to a local industry.  But we do need to act in the same spirit.  Dr. Shen’s presentation made me wonder who are the underserved or unserved in my library’s community?  Perhaps they are individuals within the groups we strive to serve, especially faculty and students?  How do we identify those individuals and how do we reach them?  This isn’t a new question nor one we have ignored.  But it is proving difficult to answer.  Yet answer it we must.

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